Sewall, Gilbert, Phi Delta Kappan
The nature of the textbook market -- a small number of buyers and an even smaller number of sellers -- combined with the influence of politically motivated interest groups and the impact of textbook- adoption states results in high-cost, instructionally confused, and content-poor textbooks, argues Mr. Sewall.
IN A LANDMARK essay on school textbooks written in 1990, James Squire and Richard Morgan stated that the U.S. textbook industry "provides our teachers with a greater choice in quality textbooks than any nation in the world."1 No longer. Choice is diminishing. Sameness and slickness challenge "quality" at all levels. And the textbook industry, instead of responding to ample and well-considered complaints -- not from cranks but from leading historians and book critics -- has become increasingly hermetic and unyielding. As a result, educators are forced to use basic instructional materials that are apparently shallow and flawed.
When Squire and Morgan wrote some 15 years ago, educational publishers, editors, salespeople, and, above all, textbook authors took great pride in the quality and content of their products. But commercial imperatives are too powerful to ignore. School publishing sales add up to almost one-seventh of U.S. publishing revenues, about $4 billion in 2004. Textbooks must sell, however diminished the content, and the four companies that have gained an iron hold on general school publishing during the last 15 years must provide whatever product is in favor with the educators and committees that buy textbooks.
The underlying problem with textbooks is a commercial one: a flawed production system. Four companies -- Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Reed Elsevier, and Houghton Mifflin -- offer "elhi" textbooks in all major subjects and at all grade levels for states, districts, and teachers to choose from. Elhi is the term universally used in the industry to describe the school market. The biggest sellers are reading and math books, sold as multi-volume programs for the lower grades. Some of the most visible and controversial textbooks are in social studies. The commercial appeal of school publishing is its reliability. With successful textbooks, publishers have the opportunity to create high- margin revenue streams that can last for years. If a successful program or volume becomes a familiar classroom friend, it can ring up huge net earnings over time.
The four big publishing companies have absorbed dozens of independent textbook companies. Several major educational publishing houses have disappeared as a result of these mergers and acquisitions. They have become brand names inside large companies. Some are recently extinct. These familiar names include Macmillan, Merrill, and Glencoe (imprints of McGraw-Hill); Prentice-Hall, Silver Burdett, Ginn, Addison Wesley, Longman, and Scott Foresman (imprints of Pearson); Holt, Rinehart and Winston (imprint of Harcourt); and D.C. Heath and McDougal Littell (imprints of Houghton Mifflin).
McGraw-Hill, Pearson, and Reed Elsevier are all companies that are traded publicly on the New York Stock Exchange. With a long history in business and technical publications and databases, McGraw-Hill, like its competitors, is interested in extending its global English-language franchise. New York-based McGraw-Hill owns elhi, college, and testing lines as well as Standard & Poor's and Business Week. Pearson and Reed Elsevier are U.K.-based firms that have similar global ambitions. Pearson owns Penguin/Putnam, the Financial Times, and The Economist. It acquired Prentice Hall and Scott Foresman as part of its global strategy. Reed Elsevier owns Harcourt Education, which has elhi and testing assets; the remainder of the firm consists of thousands of scientific, technical, and medical journals from dozens of major imprints as well as trade publications including Publishers Weekly and Variety.
Houghton Mifflin, the nation's fourth educational publisher, was sold for $1. …